This sermon was preached on May 25 at Winnetka Presbyterian Church. My text was Philippians 1:1-18a. You can listen to it, and read it, below.
So…I have preached on this text twice before. The first time, it was my last sermon for the church I served in California. The second time, it was my last sermon for the church I served in Oregon.
Just so you know, I’m hoping to not continue with that trend…
It felt like an appropriate passage of scripture to share with both of those congregations, because they were my partners in the ministry of the gospel…and I did believe that God, who started a good work in those congregations, would stay with them to complete that job…many of the same things that Paul felt toward the Philippians.
This letter of Paul’s to the Philippians is often referred to as the letter of joy. We can certainly understand why it would be called that hearing some of the phrases that Paul uses:
- “I thank my God…”
- “I’m thankful for all of you”
- “it’s always a prayer full of joy”
- “I’m glad…”
- “I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.”
- “I’m glad…and I’ll continue to be glad.”
He sounds pretty joyful for someone writing a letter from jail. But it’s not necessarily that he’s joyful because of his circumstances (though, you could make the case that he is – he does say that even more people know about Christ now that he’s been in jail). But more than that – I think he’s so joyful because of the way in which the Philippians, the people of the church, have partnered with him, have taken care of him, and have been working in the ministry of the gospel with him.
And so – as I was reading this passage, I kept being drawn to these two verses about partnership:
Verse 5: I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now.
And verse 7: I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all my partners in God’s grace, both during my time in prison and in the defense and support of the gospel.
Now, when we all think about partners…we probably have different responses. Perhaps some of you have partners who you work with professionally, and those may be good relationships, but it’s possible that some of them are strained.
And I don’t know about you, but when I was in school…even when I was in seminary…I would cringe a bit whenever a professor informed us that we’d be working in groups for a certain project. I didn’t necessarily always want partners – sometimes it would have been a whole lot easier if I could have just taken care of something on my own and did it myself.
Perhaps it’s because of the very individualistic society that we live in, but I’m sure that many of us would admit, if pressed, that we often prefer to be lone rangers…taking care of things by ourselves, rather than having the help of others.
But the thing is…we can’t do it alone. Sure maybe I could have knocked out a project in grad school quicker by myself…but when we are talking about the stuff of life, when we are talking about the work that God has called us to participate in, in the world…that’s not something that is easily done as lone rangers.
And we’ve known this from the very beginning. As we look back to the creation story in Genesis…after God had created the human, God said, “It’s not good that the human is alone. I will make the human a helper that is perfect for the human.” We were not meant to be alone…and we were not meant to do this work alone…
And so…we need partners. Here in Philippians, Paul is profusely thanking the Philippians for being partners in the ministry of the gospel. They supported Paul during his ministry with them, and continued to support him while he was in prison…most likely that was made manifest by the Philippians providing Paul with food and other necessities that he wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.
For us, this morning, one of the questions we need to ask ourselves is how are we being partners to each other? How are we supporting the church universal, and our WPC community? This work of the ministry of the gospel is not something that just David and I do…it’s not something that only the elders and the deacons or our Stephen Ministers do…this is work that we all participate in.
We all need to partner together to accomplish the goals that we have set before ourselves. The elders and committees of this congregation are just now going through a process of coming up with the goals that we have for WPC for 2014-2015; many of you have already been a part of this process. As you begin to hear about the exciting ways in which we here at WPC are wanting to participate in the ministry of the gospel over the next year…we’re going to need your help…we’re going to need you to be our partners in this ministry. This isn’t going to be something that we can do alone.
But it’s not just that we’re partnering with each other and with this church…we’re actually partnering with God, our creator, redeemer and sustainer. God needs us.
God needs us to partner with God so that we can all be actively pursuing, and participating in, the ushering in of God’s kingdom…the ushering in of God’s hopes and dreams for this world…the ushering in of a new and alternative reality that resonates with God’s inclusive love and God’s unabashed pursuit of justice and peace for all of God’s creation.
I want to share with you a story from a book that I’ve read from before, it’s called “Does God Have a Big Toe: Stories about Stories in the Bible.” It’s written by Rabbi Marc Gellman, and offers what I think are some really thought-provoking twists to familiar stories from our scriptures. This story is called “Partners.”
Partners, by Marc Gellman
Before there was anything, there was God, a few angels, and a huge swirling glob of rocks and water with no place to go. The angels asked God, “Why don’t you clean up this mess?”
So God collected rocks from the huge swirling glob and put them together in clumps and said, “Some of these clumps of rocks will be planets, and some will be stars, and some of these rocks will be…just rocks.”
Then God collected water from the huge swirling glob and put it together in pools of water and said, “Some of these pools of water will be oceans, and some will become clouds, and some of this water will be…just water.”
Then the angels said, “Well God, it’s neater now, but is it finished?” And God answered…
On some of the rocks God placed growing things, and creeping things, and things that only God knows what they are, and when god had done all this, the angels asked God, “Is the world finished now?” and God answered…
God made a man and a woman from some of the water and dust and said to them, “I am tired now. Please finish up the world for me…really it’s almost done.” But the man and woman said, “We can’t finish the world alone! You have the plans and we are too little.”
“You are big enough,” God answered them. “But I agree to this. If you keep trying to finish the world, I will be your partner.”
The man and the woman asked, “What’s a partner?” and God answered, “A partner is someone you work with on a big thing that neither of you can do alone. If you have a partner, it means that you can never give up, because your partner is depending on you. On the days you think I am not doing enough and on the days I think you are not doing enough, even on THOSE days we are still partners and we must not stop trying to finish the world. That’s the deal.” And they all agreed to that deal.
Then the angels asked God, “Is the world finished yet?” and God answered, “I don’t know. Go ask my partners.”
So we not only partner with one another to participate in this ministry of the gospel, but we partner with God, as well.
I love this idea of Gellman’s that we are working with God, trying to finish the world. We can read the news, glance at our Facebook News Feed, or even just look all around us, and see the ways in which this world is clearly unfinished…and not as God would have it.
- Children all around the world die every day from lack of clean water, food and shelter.
- Single moms work long hours at multiple jobs, and can barely earn enough money to put food on the table for their kids.
- We hear about mass shootings, and are shocked and saddened for a few days, and then move on with our lives, not taking the necessary steps to prevent future tragedies.
- We live in a world where cyber-bullying continues to be a huge problem for young people, so much so that many have decided it was not worth living anymore and have taken their lives.
- It’s the year 2014, and we still see evidence of sexism, racism and homophobia all throughout our country.
Is the world finished yet?
And so it’s up to you and I, the church and God…all partnering together…to help finish the world.
Teresa of Avila, the 16th century mystic, wrote the following:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Is the world finished yet?
And so we have the privilege of partnering with God, and trying to finish the world.
Since we all have different gifts and talents and vocations…partnering with God is going to look a little different for each person here.
For some of us – the first step may simply be to realize that Christ has no body but ours. And so we may decide to look at others throughout our days with the eyes of Jesus…with the compassion of Jesus…
And for others – it may be to finally take a step toward action around a cause that we have found ourselves being drawn to.
There’s no end to the possible ways that we can partner with God in finishing this world…
But perhaps the most significant thing that we all can do is to simply reframe how we view ourselves in relation to God.
If we think that God is the one who just… does it all, that’s going to form and shape how we live in the world, how we engage with others throughout our day, how we treat other people, how we view crises in the world, how we think about our responsibility in fighting climate change, poverty, oppression and other injustices.
But if we think of ourselves as God’s partners…if we realize that God needs us to finish the world…that changes everything. That changes the way we view ourselves, the way we view God, and the way we view our place in the world.
When we realize that we are God’s partners, we know that we can’t just sit around and wait, expecting God to be the one to bring about change in the world. Rather – we have to actively engage in the pursuit of peace and justice and love for all in the world.
As followers in the way of Jesus, we have been called to partner with God to embody and bring about the Kingdom of God in the here-and-now; the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in Heaven.
And thankfully…we too can experience the joy that Paul writes about in Philippians, because we, all of us here and all those in the church universal, have also been called to be partners.
So let’s bring joy into each other’s lives, and bring joy to God, by being partners in the ministry of the gospel.
That’s the only way we’re going to keep trying to finish the world.